Certain To Win by Chet Richards: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Certain to Win by Chet Richards.

In short

War is not necessarily like business, but since both are based on conflict, we can apply strategies from one to another (with modifications of course). Certain to Win uses John Boyd’s strategies that he synthesized from an intense study of (warfare) history and uses it in a modern business context.

John Boyd was one of the most influential strategists of the 20th century and his theories can be directly linked to the modern day war doctrines. He’s the ‘father’ of the F15/16, inventor of the OODA Loop, and has been credited with influencing the highly effective Gulf War strategy as well.

In Certain to Win Chet Richards takes the key principles of Boyd’s theories on maneuver warfare and organization and applies it to the corporate world.

If you’re interested in Boyd’s thinking and strategy, also check out my article on applying his strategy to a business environment.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.


Military strategy and business strategy

  • When using military strategy in a business context there are of course a few differences:
    • First, military strategy is aimed at destroying opponents, business strategy is (ultimately) aimed at attracting customers.
    • Second, in warfare most things are allowed whereas businesses are limited by laws and (hopefully) morals.
    • Third, in warfare the opponent is usually attacked directly, whereas in business we ‘shape’ the competitive environment and customers.
  • Since both war and business competition boils down to conflicts, the foundation of a military strategy can be applied to business as well.
  • Key in Boyd’s strategy is time, and specifically: mismatches in time. If things happen to us that are unpredictable, chaotic or deployed rapidly we become disoriented and confused. As a consequence, people become stressed, demoralized and frustrated – reducing initiative and morale, and making defeat all the more likely. This is true for both soldiers on the battlefield and employees of a company.
  • The above can also be dubbed “time-based competition”.
  • He that would run his company on visible figures alone will soon have neither company nor visible figures to work with” – W. Edwards Deming
  • Richard summaries the things that ‘win’ as follows:
    • We need to have a sense of a mission, morale, leadership, harmony & teamwork.
    • This allows us to be deceptive, to appear ambiguous, to generate surprise, to seize & keep the initiative, and create & to exploit opportunities.
    • In the enemy this causes bickering, confusion, panic, rout, and finally surrender.

John Boyd’s theories

  • A major influence of Boyd’s theory was Blitzkrieg-style warfare and guerilla warfare.
  • Four key attributes of the Blitzkrieg success are:
    • Einheit: Mutual trust, unity, and cohesion”
    • Fingerspitzengefühl: Intuitive feel, especially for complex and chaotic situations”
    • Auftragstaktik: Mission, generally considered as a contract between superior and subordinate”
    • Schwerpunkt: Any concept that provides focus and direction to the operation”
  • A second key piece of Boyd’s theories is the famous OODA Loop, in which a person engaged in a conflict moves through four activities:
    • “He must observe the environment, which includes himself, his opponent, the physical, mental, and moral situation, and potential allies and opponents”
    • “He must orient himself to decide what it all means. Boyd calls orientation a “many-sided, implicit cross-referencing” process involving the information observed, one’s genetic heritage, social environment, and prior experiences, and the results of analyses one conducts and synthesis that one forms”
    • “He must reach some type of decision.”
    • “He must attempt to carry out that decision. That is, he must act.”
  • John Boyd’s definition of strategy: “Strategy is a mental tapestry of changing intentions for harmonizing and focusing our efforts as a basis for realizing some aim or purpose in an unfolding and often unforeseen world of many bewildering events and many contending interests.”

Boyd applied to business

  • So what should a business do if it wants to apply John Boyd’s theory?
  • We should make a view of the future we want to reach, we should have different plans and actions how we can achieve this future, and sometimes we need to switch to an alternative future. Note that a plan is not the same as a strategy – there should always be alternative plans that lead to achievement of the overall strategy.
  • We should keep the focus on the customer.
  • We should always have multiple options and plans, and be ready to switch between them.
  • We should encourage initiatives at all levels of the organization.
  • We need to have Schwerpunkt in the organization: some focus or direction that all people in the organization understand and follow, and that guides them even in difficult and uncertain times.
  • Finally, we need to “harmonize our efforts to achieve the future we have in mind”.
  • In contrast, there are many different ways to destroy the harmony and internal trust that is vital to a Boydian strategy. From over-control, an ‘us vs. them’ culture, inconsistent standards and messages, and embargoing information.

Cheng and ch’i

  • Sun Tzu talked about cheng and ch’i. The former are things that everyone understands – it’s the obvious, the expected, the orthodox. The latter are things that are unexpected: maneuvers, surprises, unorthodox actions. In warfare cheng is the formation lined up for battle, and ch’i is the unexpected cavalry strike in the rear of the enemy.
  • In business we also need to engage with cheng, but we win with ch’i.
  • Richards gives the example of Japanese vs. American cars in the 1980s. The cheng of the Japanese cars was gas mileage – this was what everyone knew and expected. The ch’i was the driveablility, the finish and longevity of the cars – this was the surprise that kept consumer hooked and loyal.
  • So cheng in business is what the customers expect from the products (which you absolutely need to deliver), but you can only outperform the competition by offering ch’i, some magical unexpected difference, as well.

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